by Stephen Wilson

I recently saw an advertisement/announcement about Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Freedom Reads Project. I am truly disappointed. They state: “Recognizing the hunger for more books in prison and the community-building potential of libraries, we are collaborating with the leaders of the Departments of Corrections to bring Freedom Libraries I to multiple prison in every state in this country and Puerto Rico.”

This is one reason why I say formerly incarcerated is not a substitute for currently incarcerated. It is clear that Betts has forgotten why there is a hunger for more books in prison in the first place: censorship by the same people he is now collaborating with. He has forgotten that collectivity, community-building, is criminalized behind the walls. Prison administrators do not want prisoners to feel like they are part of any community. The purpose of prison is to isolate and alienate.

Betts should have created connections with prisoners in every state in this country and Puerto Rico. They would have told him what they want to read. They would have expressed their needs. Instead, he is depending upon prison staff to tell him prisoners’ needs. They will decide who gets access to books and when. They will decide what can be read. That’s freedom?

We know that censorship is widespread behind the walls. The very prison I am housed at has banned Toni Morrison! Nondistribution is also used by prison staff to make sure we don’t have access to books. Some jurisdictions have 10 book limits. Or softback only. Some prisoners, especially those in the hole, are outright denied access to libraries. Working to eliminate these onerous practices would get us closer to freedom.***

Betts’s intention is good. I don’t doubt that. But his method is wrong. He has given the departments of corrections another good public image story. That’s all. This project doesn’t move any of us closer to freedom. In the long run, it will most likely be used against prisoners. Let prisoners decide what we want to read. Give us access to information so we can dream our own freedom. Collaborate with us on educational programming. These things will get us all closer to freedom.

We also know the difference between freedom and escapism. Prison administrators wholeheartedly promote escapism. This is why we have PlayStations and Xboxes here. This is why the library is full of fantasy science fiction. This is why it is easier to get a ball (basketball, baseball, handball, etc.) than it is to get a book. We know some texts are mobilizing and others aren’t. Does Betts actually believe prison administrators are going to allow mobilizing texts inside? Does he believe prison administrators will allow George Jackson or Assata inside? Has he been formerly incarcerated so long now that he has forgotten what these guard and staff are like?

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